“Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.” Carl Sagan
Sagan was alive at a time when clean air and water were more overtly pressing environmental problems than climate change seemed to be. (He died in 1996.) If he was alive today, he might have said “Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if your world is burning”. Hearing the testimony of a Greek father who had grabbed his family to escape the sudden raging wildfire about to consume his house, he had a choice, to stay indoors or run into the sea. He was still alive to tell the tale, so what do you think he did?
Most of us are not directly in the line of a wildfire, perhaps only breathing the smoke spread from massive fires in Siberia, or simply sweltering in the heatwave, but you also have a choice. You can stay as you are in the house, booking your next flight, lining up the next Netflix series, or you can — metaphorically — run to the sea.
What does that mean? It means ‘planetising’ whatever cause you care about or whatever frame you see the world through. It means being ecocentric, seeing how we ARE nature and intrinsically entwined with other beings. It means being possitopian, neither dystopian nor utopian, but looking at the full range of possible scenarios and solutions in any situation (even as the negative scenarios expand and the positive options contract). It means zooming out your perspective to see the whole planet and its operating system, the interactions of ice, ocean, atmosphere, biosphere etc, and looking at how this is severely disrupted. It means putting your head under the water and doing a deep dive into current climate science — not the out-of-date and cautious models that the IPCC and Paris agreement are based on.
And then it means, doing something. Whatever your means allow you to do. Many of the things you can do will also increase your means. If you stop flying, you’ll save money. If you waste less food, eat less meat and grow some of your own food, you’ll save money. If you generate your own energy, you’ll save money. But these things are not enough. Don’t just switch your energy supplier but switch your politics, your conversations, your business, your parenting, your way of planning for the future.
Be anticipatory of many possible situations, and imagine yourself surviving them. If they frighten you, consider what you can do in advance to make the scenarios more survivable, and not just for your own family but for everyone.
This metaphorical choice between home and the sea is not in the same league as the choices you face as an individual consumer — whether to choose line caught fish or not, whether to refuse a straw.
“Society is not simply an aggregate of millions or billions of individual choices but a complex, recursive dynamic in which choices are made within institutions and ideologies that change over time as these choices feed back into the structures that frame what we consider possible. All the while, those structures are being disrupted and nudged and warped and shaken by countless internal and external drivers, including environmental factors such as global warming, material and social innovation, and the occasional widespread panic. Which is just to say that we are not free to choose how we live any more than we are free to break the laws of physics. We choose from possible options, not ex nihilo.” Roy Scranton, author of ‘We’re doomed, now what? Essays on war and climate change’
It is essential to join forces to make your actions bigger, and then to ask your politicians, your bosses, your media companies, and your local institutions to join forces to make their actions bigger. This means resisting the power of the international alliance pushing for the freedoms of the fossil fuel and ecocidal industries to continue business as usual, who are in charge of negotiations for Brexit, of the Whitehouse, and many more places and aspects of the global order.
Part of this resistance is about exposing wrongs and harms, and calling for justice. Another part is showing alternative ways of living — ways that are more regenerative, that protect and rewild the land and sea, and that are circular ecological by design.
Another part is to care for others— whether they are intimate with us or strangers, whether they are human or other species. We are all in the same boat of this burning world, but some are falling much quicker into the rough seas, losing their homes, being bombed, being forced into constant exile, or are being imprisoned or stigmatised or deported back to unliveable places.
All of these actions feel impossible. Putting your head under the water — your own and your loved ones’ heads — to escape a sweeping fire means putting yourself in a place you can’t breathe. But others came to rescue the people in the sea.
Until there is nobody left to care, and to care for, we have a choice.